Commentary for Emor

5 May

This week’s parshah contains the mitzvah of Counting the Omer; a forty-nine day period that starts with the second night of Passover and ends on the day before Shavuot. Normally a period of time during which we are given extra mitzvoth to do is regarded as a time of joy, because we are more able to serve God, but the Counting of the Omer has taken on a more sorrowful tone.

 

For a certain length of time (which varies depending on your custom, though almost all include the first thirty-three days), we consider ourselves to be in a period of semi-mourning. We do not schedule joyous affairs like weddings or Bat and Bat Mitzvahs, and many take on other signs of mourning such as not shaving or getting haircuts, avoiding happy music, or not seeing comedic movies or plays.

 

The main reason for this comes form a story in the Gemara (Yevamot 62b) about a plague that wiped out twenty-four thousand of Rabbi Akiva’s students happened during this period. The Gemara relates that the students died because they did not treat each other with respect and were jealous of each other. Even in their appointed studying pairs of just two students, they still could not get along. Having such a large number of those who are supposed to be devoting all of their time to studying Torah, a common bond among Jews everywhere, but were instead wasting their time bickering with each other made God angry, so God sent a plague to teach them a lesson. Sadly, none of them learned the lesson, and all twenty-four thousand died.

 

During the Counting of the Omer, though, there are two days on which most customs allow for the suspension of this period of semi-mourning. The first, and more modern of the two, is Yom Ha’atzmaut: Israel’s independence day (which takes place this Monday). The second, and much more ancient, is Lag B’Omer, the thirty-third day of the Omer. Lag B’Omer commemorates (among other things) the Bar Kochva Revolt in 132 C.E., in which the Jews were able to put aside the divisiveness and infighting that led to their failure in the Great Revolt of 70 C.E. and united to liberate themselves from Roman oppression, creating an independent state that lasted for two and a half years. This was the last independent Jewish state until the founding of the State of Israel, when the Jews of Israel once again joined together, becoming more unified than they had been in over eighteen hundred years, to once again fight for independence in our homeland. It is very appropriate that we break from our period of mourning for Rabbi Akiva’s students by celebrating those who learned the lesson that they could not: We are much stronger united than we are divided, and to achieve this strength we must put aside our jealousies and grudges and prejudices, because ultimately, those will lead to our downfall.

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